Friday, September 13, 2013

Victorian Violence: Repelling Ruffians (Part Three)

by Terry Kroenung

I was not surprised when Holmes suggested that I should take my revolver with me. He had himself picked up the loaded hunting-crop, which was his favourite weapon. ---The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

The light flashed upon the barrel of a revolver, but Holmes’s hunting crop came down on the man’s wrist, and the pistol clinked upon the stone floor. --- The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

"I’m a bit of a single-stick expert, as you know. I took most of them on my guard. It was the second man that was too much for me.” ---The Adventure of the Illustrious Client


When a lady or gentleman of the Victorian upper or middle class ventured into a less-than-savory district, a variety of defensive aids was available, from the lethal pistol and knife to the simple cudgel, walking stick, and umbrella. In this essay we shall eschew firearms and confine ourselves largely to the items most likely to be either carried by someone of refinement or by those rogues who preyed upon them. 

Despite the accompanying illustrations, violence upon propertied people was probably not as widespread as novels and press reports of the time, both depending on sensationalism for sales, would have us believe. That being said, incidents of self-defense against the criminal element did occur with enough frequency that a brisk trade in protective means existed.


A mere club, the cudgel was more likely to be employed against our unfortunate gentleman than by him. It could be as crude as a limb wrenched from a handy tree or as refined as a gaily-painted policeman’s truncheon. Shorter and more rudimentary than the walking stick (generally less than an arm’s length), its affordability and ease of concealment made it popular, particularly with the lower sort. 

Indeed, the late Victorian police truncheon was only fifteen inches in length and lived in a specially-built pocket of the officer’s trousers. For even though the servant of the law could claim authority to employ his cudgel, it was not considered proper to wantonly display the threat, since moral suasion was the first line of a Peeler’s defense. Particularly in the first half of Victoria’s reign these sticks would be ornately decorated, as they were the officer’s mark of authority as well as his weapon.

Cudgel tactics were unsophisticated compared to the exotic joint-locking techniques taught today. Chiefly it was a case of ‘brain him’ with a stunning blow to the offender’s cranium. As can be imagined, this often resulted in a dead suspect and rather less labor for the magistrate.


A variant of the club was the so-called life preserver, which a respectable man might carry, though not as often as he might a proper cane. Easily hidden at about a foot in length, it had a flexible shaft of whalebone or some such supple core, leather-wrapped, with a weighted knob at one end. Their construction ran the gamut from crude to almost artistic. Principal targets were the head and wrist.

The knobstick was closely related, but its weighted end was a lead ball wrapped in string, rather than leather. It cushioned the blow somewhat, though it remains a point of conjecture as to whether the recipient often appreciated the consideration.

Loaded Hunting Crop

As seen in the Arthur Conan Doyle excerpts above, Sherlock Holmes favored a variation of the life-preserver. The loaded hunting crop contained a steel or lead core wrapped in leather. Less legally problematic than a pistol, and not as likely to permanently ruin a man whose testimony might be required to solve a case, they would be employed much as a life-preserver or cudgel.


Rather on the more brutal end of the spectrum lay the knuckleduster, a remnant of the sword hilt which had always been used when a duel got to close quarters and blades could no longer be effectively brought to bear. This had the advantage of being readier to hand than a pocketed cudgel, since in seamier districts it could remain on the fist. One version, marketed as the ‘Highway Protector,’ sported a spike on the little-finger side for striking behind.

Even easier to conceal was the Apache ring, essentially a knuckleduster for one finger but operating in the same manner.

Named for the vicious French street gangs of the Belle Époque who favored them, they often had fearsome projections that would leave ghastly wounds on the faces of their victims to serve as warnings against future trespass.

Walking Stick

Naturally the gentleman’s weapon most associated with the Victorian era in the popular imagination would be the cane or walking stick. Appearing in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and gadgetry, the stick was essential equipment for a man or woman of means. A substitute for the sword as an article of refined dress, its phallic symbolism is best left for another essay. The actual employment of canes and umbrellas in defense will be discussed in part 4 of this series.

The 19th century saw the height of the aristocratic stick’s popularity, both as ornament and as weapon (Victorian London boasted some 60 walking stick shops). It sprang from Louis XIV’s adoption of an embellished stick as a symbol of his majesty, a form of scepter. He even banned commoners from sporting them. Overnight, as with so much else in the Sun King’s orbit, fancy sticks became essential at court. 

The 18th century saw both smallsword and stick carried together. After the Napoleonic era the former gave way to the less lethal (and arguably cheaper, for the masses) stick. Functional jewelry, sticks could be decorated to the level of the bearer’s wealth as a symbol in a very status-conscious age. Almost incidentally a stick also kept a gentleman upright in dodgy ground and in dodgy company.

Canes could be utilitarian, of course, like a good Irish blackthorn. A certain type of confident gentleman would favor one of these, proclaiming to the world that he had no time to waste concerning himself with mere foppery.

There was the added benefit that such a stick made a more than serviceable weapon and its owner was less likely to wail if it shattered upon the thick pate of a luckless thug.

For self-defense two types stood out. A crook-handled stick had much to recommend it inasmuch as it could snare the limbs and even necks of assailants. As it lacked a solid punch, however, a gentleman might eschew it for a heavy knobbed affair that could cave in the skull of a determined adversary. The ultimate example of this sort of formidable stick would be the knobkerrie, originally a native weapon from South Africa that could even be thrown like a missile.

System Stick

Naturally some gentlemen preferred to employ less brute force and more surgical precision in a crisis. For them the discerning designers of the Industrial Age could provide system sticks, so called because they contained any number of clever devices, from brandy flasks to complete medical kits. Simplest was the classic swordstick, a steel blade inside the hollow shaft.

A few opted for spring-loaded stiletto points that could pop out of the end. One wicked French version had razors that would snap out along the whole stick, to the great inconvenience of anyone foolish enough to seize it. And the added advantage of a swordstick was that once drawn the user had a pair of weapons, for the hollow body made a splendid cudgel/parrying stick in its own right.

It goes without saying that any arms race will always increase in lethality. Once the criminal element in a particular region embraced firearms then a segment of the gentry would follow suit. Quite a few canes became vessels for powder and ball. Yet turning one’s stick into a shotgun could be considered a step backward for the genteel man.

Umbrella and Parasol

As ubiquitous as the walking stick, and seemingly an unofficial passport declaring one’s bone fides as an English citizen, the brolly may have been used in defense more often by women than men. Indeed, a significant body of literature exists outlining tactics to be employed by ladies with umbrellas (see part 4 for illustrations of such techniques). While specialized uses similar to stick-play were the norm, this did not exclude the manufacture of umbrellas with daggers, swords, etc.


While ladies’ fashions varied widely in the period, from enormous hoop skirts to bustles to leg-of-mutton sleeves, hatpins were a constant for much of the age. Particularly when bonnets tied under the chin gave way to hats perched atop the head, and even more so with the advent of wide-brimmed affairs easily caught by the wind, hatpins became utterly essential items for all women. So large was the demand that one Gloucestershire factory employed over 1,500 workers.

Pins grew very long, some over 14 inches, to accommodate the increasing size of hairstyles and chapeaus. Legislation had to be enacted to limit both the length of pins and the danger of their exposed points, requiring caps on the later so as to not scratch passersby. It took no great imagination, of course, to envision pins as weapons in a crisis. In point of fact, the very possibility of suffragettes wielding them against the police led to yet another law of 1908 restricting them.

Thus we have examined a number of common street weapons of the Victorian age. While no means an exhaustive account (the entire range of firearms and knives being reserved for another day, along with such exquisite rarities as belt buckle pistols and garrotes), the reader or author of 19th century literature may now be confident of a basic grounding in the more likely devices to be encountered or employed.

Terry Kroenung is the author of Brimstone and Lily, a serio-comic fantasy novel set in 1862, and its sequel, Jasper’s Foul Tongue. Book 3 in the series, Jasper’s Magick Corset, will be available in November 2013. Paragon of the Eccentric, his Steampunk prequel to War of the Worlds, is pending. He has also written period dramas set in the 19th century, such as Gentle Rain, and Coolness and Courage.


  1. What a wonderful post; I need to brush up my *cudgel tactics*!

  2. Lovely piece, very interesting. Knuckle dusters, knives and guns are still in use. I write Regency but good to know the next period on too. Giselle Marks, author.

  3. Interesting! Thanks for the insight

  4. Great stuff! Thanks for the interesting blog..


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